2020 will go down as a year in which almost everything changed, but one thing that has not is the usual outpouring of the Christmas advertisements. MacDonald’s asks ‘Are you Reindeer Ready?’, whilst Tesco, encouraging us all to indulge ourselves, proclaims ‘There is no naughty list’. John Lewis and Waitrose go for a different theme with the slogan ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody gave a little love’.
Thinking of that in the context of my therapeutic practice I am reminded time and again that it is so often little things that can build or sour a relationship. Grand gestures have their place but it is the small things that people talk about most often.
When people first come to see me I will always say ‘Think back to when you first met, what was it at that stage that attracted you to each other’. Physical attraction plays a part of course but often their answers are about just small things. ‘It was the way he listened to me’, or ‘She treated me as if I mattered’, or ‘she was fun’, or ‘he was very caring’.
Later on, as therapy progresses, it is interesting to see if the things that were initially so attractive have become something far from that. Always asking how your partner is can end up feeling inquisitorial; or always offering to help can result in a person resenting the fact that their partner never seems to trusts them to do anything. So often these general feelings of frustration then become focused on seemingly small things too. It’s about how they leave their clothes around – or fail to put the top back on the toothpaste – or leave the cupboard doors open. Clients say to me – ‘I can’t believe we are discussing this small thing in therapy’. But behind these examples lie the much deeper issues that have brought them into my counselling room.
At that point we need together to get beyond the presenting symptoms, to explore and understand the deeper feelings that are being evoked. Once again this requires the couple to engage in the demanding task of listening to each other, and being able to suspend each one’s own often-opposing feelings and experience as they do. Couples need to move away from the notion that there is only one way of seeing things and that things are either right or wrong.
Small things come into play once more. How easy it is for anyone to dismiss the concerns and experience of the other, when they don’t fit with their own. But where one partner can begin to see that showing compassion, care and understanding for the others feelings doesn’t negate their own position, the toxic dynamic can begin to shift. And this has to happen both ways for trust to build and a healthier relationship to develop. It is seemingly small things that can gradually make an enormous difference. The statement ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody gave a little love’ is so often crucial in therapeutic practice. Small things may mask far deeper problems but it’s small things that can so often provide a way forward to rebuild a damaged relationship.